From tasty to tastebud-searing, playful izakaya-style small plates complement an extensive whisky selection
DINE Among the stand-tall, manly-man libations, none stands taller than whiskey, or (for Caledonophiles) whisky. Caledonia was the Roman name for Scotland, of course, and in Scotland the manly men drink whisky. And wear kilts. What is the implication of all this for us fey, pampered, urban Americans? At the edge of our very own Mission District, a five-year-old restaurant called Nihon styles itself a "whisky lounge" and serves the small plates known to the Japanese as izakaya. So: take Japanese food, present it in a gorgeous, moody setting, sprinkle far and wide with Scotch whisky (including 400 varieties of single malt) as if watering your Chia Pet, and and lo! you get hipsters. Hipsters don't wear kilts — yet — but they do like to wear their tight-fitting shirts untucked. Why?
Nihon's whisky installation is impressive: a soaring architecture of bottles behind the bar. The bottle battlement dominates the main floor (which you enter through a set of huge, frosted-glass doors trimmed with wrought iron) and rises nearly as high as the mezzanine, the place to go if you seek some coziness. On your way up, note the porthole and, at the rear of the second floor, a semi-private lounge set with comfy chairs and a sofa under exposed roof joists. The only fly in this rich design ointment is the view: the windows gaze onto the unromantic intersection of Folsom and 14th streets and the immense, neon-glare parking lot of Foods Co. No wonder the panes are hung with screens of fine steel mesh.
Izakaya-style food reminds us that Japanese cuisine includes cooked as well as uncooked items, although it's probably a stretch to call Nihon's cooking Japanese in any purist sense. Evidence of California whimsy is laced throughout the menu, perhaps nowhere so plainly as in the rolls, which bear clever names and, like the fancier sorts of burritos, emphasize variety and plenitude. The thunderbird roll ($16) is a cornucopia of tempura soft-shell crab, gobo, and daikon sprouts, topped by a roof of eel, avocado, tobiko, and a glaze of tsume — a sweetish sauce made from boiled eel. A bit too sweet, I thought, like over-honeyed barbecue sauce. Better was the quite spicy samurai roll ($13) with spicy tuna, rounds of pickled jalapeño pepper the color of black olives, daikon spicy sesame sauce, and habañero tobiko. The chili heat here was measured but intense and sustained. The kamikaze roll ($15) resembled the thunderbird more than the kamikaze, with the chief difference being salmon instead of tuna. Salads abound. A familiar wakame edition ($5) mixed the blackish threads of seaweed with baby greens for a nice textural contrast; the salad looked like a small wig someone had plugged into an electric socket. We did find the dressing too salty. The Nihon salad ($8), by contrast, a tangle of somen noodles and cucumber slices within a ring of thin-sliced, nori-wrapped rice coins, benefited from a white miso dressing that, like ponzu sauce, found a balance among salt, sweetness, and acid.
You can go spicy or not. On the mild end of the scale, we found that a plate of broccoli and cauliflower florets ($5) had been roasted just enough to give them a hint of give and char while (as with a proper stir-fry) leaving them with plenty of snap. Not much else was done to them beyond a splash or two of ginger-soy sauce; they were left to speak for themselves. At the far end: Dr. Octopus ($10), a row of broiled octopus flaps seated on cucumber coins and squirted with some sort of fiery red chili paste. Red chili paste can be a doomsday weapon, obliterating every flavor around it — and that was pretty much the case here, although (also as here) such obliteration can be exhilarating. Notable was the tenderness of the octopus, which can toughen so quickly when cooked. If it's beautifully tender, who cares about some chili overload?